Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Singularity and the soul

Singularity- an interesting concept that many science fiction writers have touched on in the past (and will probably continue to do so as people predict it coming ever closer). Probably the best science fiction story on the subject was written by Marc Stiegler called “The Gentle Seduction “ *. The concept is this: at some point in time the rate of scientific advancement is so fast as to become incomprehensible, with changes happening faster than they can be absorbed. One effect of this is the concept that eventually computers become so advanced as to be able to exceed the capabilities of our minds- or to extend them. The extension of this is eternal life through downloading the mind into a computer and continuing to live forever- either virtually or through various artificial bodies when physical interaction is desired. What got me thinking about this topic? A recent BBC documentary** (Ok originally screened in 2006 and recently rescreened…) that somebody mentioned discussing these ideas (I haven’t seen the actual documentary unfortunately)

Aside from the various aspects of how this would affect society, the economy and the job market- there seems to be another area that needs to be addressed- where does the soul fit in? Now, the one view of the soul is that it has three main components- ruach, neshamah and nefesh. The ruach is essentially the animating spirit common to all living things. It is basically the physical component of the soul and finite. The nefesh is the holy spark, the pure part that comes from God, the neshamah the combining influence- the part that is the “You”, the unique part of this life that grows, makes decisions and is needed to lift the physical to the spiritual.

So, what happens when our intellect is removed from the body? What happens to the soul? It would seem that the ruach at least would die. It is tied to the physical, and thus the removal of the physical means it, too, is removed. What about the higher parts? The neshamah is a link, a connection between the physical and the spiritual. If the physical ceases to be, does it? Is there a purpose in trying to perfect ourselves, overcome our limitations, when the limiting factor, the pull of the physical is removed? On the other hand- does the physical have to be the body as we know it? Is the lure of the physical, the challenge to move towards spirituality, as great once we are out of the physical body and embedded in the silicone heart of a machine? Is the neshamah dependant on a meat body, or on a connection into the physical creation of Hashem?

This question seems to be at the heart of this coming issue- is eternal life actually worthwhile? If we are rooted in the mundane and the physical- then the answer is yes. For those that believe this life is it, that death is oblivion and nullity, the answer is clear- continued existence must be preferred over being snuffed out. For those that do believe in an afterlife- the issue of what happens to the soul becomes paramount. If the world to come is where we actually want to be- then eternal life is actually a punishment. It denies us the movement into the realm that we are ultimately destined for. If the soul dies and the intellect continues to exist, is there any value to soulless living? Does spirituality die with the body, or does it continue as long as there is an intellect to interact with the world? (The question of spirituality and artificial intellects that may arise is a different can of worms to be opened in the future!)

Don’t look at me for the answers- questions such as these are going to require the contemplation and teshuvot from the Gedolei hador. But I open to the floor to you, any thoughts or comments on this?

* (Originally published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine in August 1989)


July 24, 2008 Posted by | Other Torah, Random, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments